Category Archives: washington post

Post Editorial: Vote Against All Charter Amendments

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s editorial board has weighed in on MoCo’s competing charter amendments and recommends voting against all of them. The Post wrote that both citizens’ initiatives – Robin Ficker’s amendment on taxes and the nine council district proposal – were bad ideas. But the Post also said, “Yet neither of the council’s competing proposals is preferable to the status quo.” The Post’s verdict is to vote against all of the amendments and stick with the county’s current property tax system and council structure.

You can read the Post’s editorial here.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.

In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.

Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.

Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!

So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.

Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.

Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!

That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.

The Apple Ballot

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.

The Washington Post

Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?

Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group

Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?

One Montgomery’s Attack Piece

The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.

There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.

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Post Endorses Harris and Evans for School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed Lynne Harris and Shebra Evans for school board. Evans is an incumbent running for reelection in District 4. Harris is a former PTA president running for an open at-large seat in a strongly contested and controversy-packed race.

The Post and the Apple Ballot are hugely influential in school board elections. Because Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta already has the Apple, it will be hard (but not impossible) for candidates other than Harris and Dasgupta to make it out of the at-large primary.

I will have a lot more to say about this soon.

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Three Keys to School Board Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

Make no mistake: running for school board is TOUGH.  The MoCo school board has two at-large seats, five district seats and one seat elected by MCPS students.  Of the seven non-student seats, all of them – at-large and district – are subject to voting by the entire county electorate.  Three seats – one of the at-large seats plus Districts 2 and 4 – hold elections in presidential years, which attract tons more voters than gubernatorial years when elections for other state and county offices are held.  Since the school board seats are non-partisan, both primaries and generals can be real competitions.  Finally, Republicans, unaffiliated and third party voters can vote in school board primaries as well as generals.  So school board candidates have to communicate with waaaaaay more voters than county-level and state legislative candidates and they have a lot less money to do that.

Dear readers, think about all of the above before you decide to run for school board!

And so these races are distinguished by little money, large electorates and woefully inadequate press attention.  That’s why three factors are almost always key to deciding them.  They are:

1.  Incumbency.  This is an important advantage in most elections.  Incumbents have opportunities to learn the issues, assemble records, build relationships and accumulate name recognition.  School board races are no exception.

2.  The Apple Ballot.  The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has long had the most advanced political program of any group that participates in MoCo elections.  Its centerpiece is the mighty Apple Ballot, an apple-shaped endorsement flyer that is widely distributed at election time.  Few if any groups care more about school board elections than MCEA since board members set policy, hire the superintendent and approve collective bargaining agreements.

A version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  Note the placement of school board candidates at the top.

3.  The Washington Post endorsement.  The Post regularly endorses in school board races and the newspaper has a reach that extends beyond traditional Democratic voting constituencies.  The Post is also occasionally critical of MCEA although it sometimes supports the same candidates as the teachers.

Without the benefit of significant resources to communicate with vast numbers of voters, school board candidates with one or more of the above advantages are heavily dependent on them to differentiate themselves from the pack.  That’s why while all of the above advantages matter in any race, they may be especially critical to candidates for school board.

The table below shows candidates in contested school board races from 2006 through 2018 and the distribution of incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Post endorsement.  In some cases, the primary was uncontested because there were two or fewer candidates while the general was contested.

A casual glance demonstrates the value of incumbency, the Apple and the Post endorsement but let’s be more explicit.  The table below shows win rates for all three, as well as combinations of some or all of them.

In every tabulation, candidates holding at least one of the above three advantages win at least 75% of the time.  Holders of more than one advantage often win more than 90% of the time.  Candidates holding both the Apple and the Post, whether or not they are incumbents, are nearly a lock.  The one recent exception was in 2016, when at-large incumbent Phil Kauffman had both the Apple and the Post and was still defeated by former Paint Branch High School Principal Jeanette Dixon.  In that race, Kauffman earned the Apple Ballot after the primary and the Post did not endorse him until October, possibly weakening the value of those endorsements.

These three factors don’t explain everything, but they explain a lot.  While it’s possible to win without any of these advantages, as Dixon demonstrated, it’s very difficult.  Keep an eye on these keys as this year’s school board races move forward.

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Post Editorial Board Goes After Elrich… Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has published an editorial branding Council Member Marc Elrich, who is currently leading in the Democratic primary for Executive, as “an outlier who proudly positioned himself on the ideological extreme left” and “the most insistently anti-business and anti-development member of the Montgomery County Council for more than a decade.”  Those who are interested in the Post’s opinion can read it here.

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The Washington Post Ballots

By Adam Pagnucco.

Two ballots were handed out today announcing county-level endorsements by the Washington Post.

The first one shows all of the Post’s endorsements for County Executive, County Council and Board of Education.  It has an authority line from David Blair’s campaign.  We hear that several other Post-endorsed campaigns distributed it in addition to Blair’s people.  The presence of an authority line makes it legal and the fact that it included all the county Post endorsements, not just some, is fair.

The second one shows just four of the Post’s endorsements: County Executive (Blair), Council At-Large (Evan Glass and Marilyn Balcombe) and Council District 1 (Andrew Friedson).  The other two Council At-Large Post endorsees (incumbent Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz) do not appear.  It has no visible authority line.  This particular one was distributed in Bethesda but we have no idea how many were handed out.  If it indeed lacks an authority line, this ballot violated state election law.  It was also misleading because it only partially lists the Council At-Large endorsements.  No campaign has admitted responsibility for this flyer.

We have not seen a “Washington Post Ballot” in the past.  But if it continues, and if campaigns can agree on funding it, it could conceivably be turned into an alternative to the Apple Ballot.

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Is This the Most Expensive Facebook Ad in MoCo Politics?

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive candidate David Blair wants you to know that the Washington Post has endorsed him.  Wait, that doesn’t do it justice.  He really, REALLY wants you to know that.  Why do we say so?  Because he may have purchased the most expensive Facebook ad in the history of MoCo politics to publicize it.

Most Facebook ads from state and local candidates cost less than a hundred bucks and run for a few days.  The more you pay, the bigger the audience, but there is considerable variability in exposure and targeting.  Still, a $50 ad on something good is a cheap way to get your name out there.  If every exposure costs two cents (a VERY rough guesstimate with a lot of spread), that fifty bucks could get you on 2,500 feeds and draw a few dozen interactions.

The exact stats on ad cost and engagements are available only to the advertisers.  But Facebook has a political ad tracker that reports stats in ballpark ranges.  Here’s a report of an ad that Council Member George Leventhal is running on his hilarious Avengers-themed campaign video.  He spent up to $100 on the ad and it showed up on 5,000-10,000 feeds.  (The actual people count will be less because some will have seen it more than once.)  This is a very typical ad in MoCo politics.

Now here is the ad Blair is running on his Post endorsement.  The report indicates that he spent between $10,000 and $50,000 and it showed up on more than a million feeds.

By the standards of MoCo politics, that’s unheard of.  Even David Trone rarely spends more than $1,000 on his Facebook ads.  We know of one ad – on men’s mental health – on which Trone spent between $1,000 and $5,000, receiving between 10,000 and 50,000 impressions.

So if you live in MoCo and have a Facebook account, we bet you know that David Blair has been endorsed by the Washington Post.  And if you didn’t, well… you need to log in!

Disclosure: Your author supports Roger Berliner and spends way too much time on Facebook.

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Washington Post Endorses for MoCo Council, School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed the following candidates for County Council and Board of Education.

Council At-Large: Gabe Albornoz, Marilyn Balcombe, Evan Glass, Hans Riemer

Council District 1: Andrew Friedson

Council District 2: Craig Rice

Council District 3: Sidney Katz

Council District 4: Nancy Navarro

Council District 5: Tom Hucker

Board of Education At-Large: Julie Reiley

Board of Education District 3: Pat O’Neill

Read their endorsements here.

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What the Post’s Endorsement of Blair Means

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s endorsement of businessman David Blair hit like a grenade this past weekend, blowing up the County Executive race.  What does it mean?

First, in reading the language of the Post’s endorsement, we are struck by how closely their views on the challenges facing the county resemble our own.  The majority of these opening three paragraphs mirror what we have been writing about the county economy for years.

These seem like boom times in Montgomery County, the mainly rich suburb that has absorbed roughly 100,000 new residents since 2010 to a population now approaching 1.1 million. Amazon (whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post) has shortlisted the county for its second corporate headquarters; construction cranes tower over Bethesda and Silver Spring; and the public school system, one of the nation’s largest, includes some of the best high schools anywhere.

That’s why it’s easy to overlook some ominous signs of fiscal and economic trouble ahead. A burgeoning population of retirees, immigrants and other less affluent residents has strained local resources and budgets. Those moving into the county tend to be poorer than those leaving. The chasm between economically prosperous pockets (such as the ones dominated by cranes) and stagnant ones is widening. Most worrying, business and job growth are anemic.

That’s the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary, which is likely to determine who will run the county for the next four years. County Executive Isiah Leggett, a deft and capable manager, is retiring after 12 years in the job (and no Republican has won an election in Montgomery since 2002). The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.

The Post framed the election’s central question correctly.  And their policy view, clearly established in the language above, will no doubt influence their choices for County Council.  That said, they do not share your author’s view that governing experience is useful for addressing these challenges.  So be it.

The Post has a pretty good record in top-tier MoCo Democratic primaries.  They endorsed Chris Van Hollen (CD-8) in 2002, Ike Leggett (County Executive) in 2006 and 2014 and John Delaney (CD-6) in 2012.  They also endorsed Kathleen Matthews (CD-8) in 2016, who finished third.

Even so, the Post is not a king-maker; one of the good things about MoCo politics is that we have no king-makers here.  But their endorsement matters, especially when five candidates are vying to be the chief rival for Marc Elrich.  Consider what Roger Berliner (your author’s choice), Bill Frick or Rose Krasnow would have said if they had gotten the Post endorsement.  If Berliner had received it, he would have told non-Elrich voters, “I am the one who combines the Sierra Club, moderates, District 1 voters and now the Post.  I’m the alternative to Elrich.”  Frick would have said something similar while substituting realtors for the Sierra Club.  If Krasnow had received it, she would have said, “I am the only woman in a primary in which sixty percent of voters will be women and now I have the Post.  I’m the alternative to Elrich.”  None of these things can be said now.  All three lose the opportunity to leverage the Post endorsement to expand outside their geographic bases.

It is sometimes said that Elrich has a ceiling.  Some voters will find a decades-long socialist who equates transit-oriented development with ethnic cleansing and favors rent control unappealing.  But Blair has a ceiling too.  That was expressed by a commenter on Seventh State’s Facebook page who wrote, “I don’t want a businessman political newcomer who is trying to buy the election.”  Fair or not, that is a common sentiment among Democratic activists, and those who feel this way are not persuadable on this point.  Blair can send them thirty mailers and they won’t budge.  How many rank-and-file voters have this view?  David Trone, who shares this handicap, received 22% of MoCo’s vote in the 2016 Congressional District 8 race.  That’s an imperfect analogy because CD8 omits some relatively moderate areas in MoCo’s Upcounty and Trone was not talking about the unpopular nine percent property tax hike in his campaign.  Still, Blair will need more than 22% to win.

Besides Blair, the other big winner from the Post’s endorsement is Elrich.  Elrich has been crusading against rival candidates who have been supported by wealthy businessmen for years; now he gets an ACTUAL wealthy businessman as perhaps his chief opponent.  Elrich is no doubt rubbing his hands together in glee as his progressive hordes gird for battle against plutocracy.  His field coordinator must be dizzy with joy.

Both the Elrich and Blair campaigns need to consider the following question.  Which group is larger in the Democratic primary electorate: the people who believe that taxes have gone up but their service quality has not or the people in Elrich’s base?  If the former outnumber the latter – not an impossible prospect considering that a majority of Democrats voted for term limits two years ago – then maybe an outsider has a shot.  It would be totally unprecedented given that every prior MoCo Executive has had governing experience before assuming office.  But Robin Ficker winning a charter amendment vote by forty points was also unprecedented.

Thanks to the Post, a wild election has gotten a little wilder.  There are only forty-three days to go before this story reaches its momentous conclusion!

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